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For a while there in the late 80s and into the 90s, when we wanted to see a Shakespeare movie on the big screen, it was most often Kenneth Branagh who went ahead and made one. That includes his first, this rousing and action-packed adaptation of Henry V’s invasion of France that faithfully captures the look and feel of the time along with the classic Shakespearean language that, while daunting, is so poetically accessible and energetically performed, one need not be a master of the flowery prose to enjoy what is easily one of the best renditions of the Bard’s work ever put to film.
Told in Five Acts, the story begins with a pair of church leaders scheming to distract the young king from passing a law that would limit property of the church, convincing him that he is the rightful heir to the French throne and therefore an invasion is warranted. When the French reply to the news with a box of tennis balls, the insult is taken with humor by Henry but a campaign is begun and the two countries go to war. Along the way, Henry also becomes enamored with Katherine (Emma Thompson), the French king’s daughter. Alway time for romance.
Branagh does double duty, being the film’s star and director (his debut), and creates a stirring, breathlessly captivating experience that keeps much of the language while grounding it in heavy realism. Surrounding himself with some of Britain’s finest stage and film actors, the movie is both visually engrossing and supremely acted, with everyone delivering sensational performances. What truly makes it a success is how well the typically dense Shakespearean dialogue is easy to follow simply by the action, with broad emotional gestures and sublime readings. A fan or not of English literary works, this is a film of uncommon wide appeal. And like every movie, it has one great moment (though to be sure, there is not a weak spot in the entire production).
After a string of difficult victories, Henry and his army advance as the French royalty sends a messenger to demand his thinning army to retreat, though Henry retorts that they are still a finer band of soldiers than anything the French can muster. Indeed though, his men grow weary and fatigued. At Agincourt, well to the east side of France, a great battle is staged, and the night before, under disguise, Henry mingles with the exhausted and bitter troops who claim the King is culpable for the coming deaths since the French army outnumbers the men five to one.
Henry realizes the morale is too low for victory, and so in the morning, the morning of 25 October and the feast of Saints Crispin and Crispinian (the patron saints of the working class tanners, cobblers, and leather workers), he addresses the men in the chill morning dew, standing upon a platform and calling upon the gathered to feel confidence in their coming victory, that they indeed will long look at this day every year in the future as their greatest moment of victory. It will be a day of glory.
The motivational speech before a battle is practically cliché in historical war films now (and has shifted to sport), having its roots as far back as 1938’s Dawn Patrol, but there’s nothing like a little pep talk with a Shakespearean twist. Branagh’s stirring rendition is a rousing, deeply inspiring account that reminds the soldiers that no, home is not where good Englishmen should be right then, and those that stayed behind safe in their beds will regret not being here, but they that are here will find their names soon cast to legend.
Calling them “We happy few, we band of brothers,” the famous connotation, which would come to be emblematic of all good men in times of battle, hits with great impact as the numbers they face as enemy are far greater their own. Spine-tingling in its delivery, Branagh’s triumphant voice is a crescendo of emotion, beautifully (and perfectly) punctuated by composer Patrick Doyle‘s rousing score, practically pulling viewers up and out of their chairs to join the fight. It’s the cornerstone of the film and one of many brilliantly presented speeches in the story. It’s a great moment.